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South Africa trip is bringing Ulster together: Kiss

Ulster boss highlights importance of team bonding and defends PRO14 experiment

By Adam McKendry

Les Kiss sits alone in a rather large conference room at the Garden Court Hotel in Port Elizabeth.

It's a sad reflection on how the local media have taken to the Guinness PRO14 that nobody has shown up to get an opponent's thoughts.

Indeed, not only that, but host broadcaster SunSport didn't even make an appearance at the stadium walkthrough Ulster were offered at the Isaac Wolfson Stadium ahead of tomorrow's game (kick-off 1pm UK time).

Then again, while the Toyota Cheetahs have begun to flourish in the PRO14, the Southern Kings have very much faltered, propping up the entire league with seven losses, zero wins and zero points.

"We have to be patient," Kiss starts slowly. "It's new for the market here to understand European rugby and the PRO14 as it is now.

"They've had to come from a Super Rugby season blended with a Currie Cup season and then start anew with one month's notice. It's a massive challenge on all fronts, and how they've managed the change has been good so far."

Patience, however, is running thin. While his point about the team being thrown together is valid, it also reflects the hastened nature of the inclusion of the Super Rugby castaways.

The Kings' performances have been as concerning as the results and fans have been voting with their feet, fewer than 500 people turning out for their defeat to Leinster in September at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

That should be rectified this weekend by a move to the smaller Isaac Wolfson Stadium, which serves a larger community as well, but may yet paper over the cracks.

"There's challenges along the way but I hope they give it a good go," Kiss continues. "It's expanding the game which is important.

"The PRO14 had the same format for a long time and this is a chance to look at other ways to structure a competition. There's a lot to do but this is a good start."

And, of course, a trip to the sun-drenched east coast of South Africa will never go amiss.

The team went on safari on Wednesday, while several of the players couldn't resist the lure of King's Beach yesterday afternoon.

A club so rarely gets to travel like this, and it's paying dividends in terms of bringing the players closer together as a squad.

"The fact we have a lot of injuries and guys in the Irish camp, you're bringing another group of players together," Kiss explains.

"That's important for us because this group will be the one that carries us through the season when we get to times like the Six Nations, and you need that group to be so strong and solid.

"You look through the group and the experience - guys like Chris Henry and Alan O'Connor and around the edges Sean Reidy - but young Jonny Stewart, Adam McBurney, a returning Craig Gilroy, there are important members of this team bonding."

There is business to be done and, ideally, it should be done with a bonus point. But now is not the time to take anything for granted.

"In a game like this there's always pressure, a high expectation to make sure you get the win," Kiss acknowledges. "The difference is this is an environment that is completely different to what anybody else is going to experience. They'll have a fanbase and a bigger crowd, and the energy they garner from that will be interesting.

"They're a pretty tricky team to play, they've got some speedsters, they've got some great skills.

"In three games at least they've got to 55 minutes and there's only been 14 points in it, and if you take your eye off the ball they can hurt you.

There is one injury doubt within the 25-man squad ahead of tomorrow's tie with centre Luke Marshall at risk of missing the game.

Of those left at home, Rodney Ah You will be out for six weeks after undergoing thumb surgery, while Jean Deysel sits out with a shoulder injury.

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